The Big One, Einstein in LA, Soundwalls, Owls saving wine, Upside-down sea mirrors, The deadliest fungus

Week of March 29, 2019

Geology and Earthquakes

When is the Big One coming? It will, you know

Creative Commons: John Wiley

Lucy Jones is a seismologist, perhaps best known in and around California as the Earthquake Lady, or perhaps Dr. Earthquake. Jones’ 2018 book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) examines how humankind has dealt with various earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes that have pummeled our civilization over the millennia. It’s an informative (and depressing) read.

In this essay, she takes a look at earthquake history in Southern California, essentially telling us that we are due for a “Big One” soon…although defining soon has always been a struggle for geologists. She points out, however, that its been 330 years since the southern part of the San Andreas fault (near LA) has had a sizeable earthquake, “about twice the average time between its previous earthquakes.” According to Jones, that means about twenty-six feet of relative motion has been built up in the fault, held in place by friction, and “waiting to be released in one great jolt”. Yikes.


History of Science

Einstein in LA

Albert Einstein giving a talk at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena in 1931.

The great 20th-century physicist Albert Einstein visited California in 1931 (and ’32, ’33), staying mostly in Pasadena. He spent time at Caltech and visited the Mt. Wilson observatory. He also caught the Rose Parade and visited The Huntington Library in San Marino. For part of the time, he lived at this house in Pasadena.

CalTech has been extensively involved in the Einstein papers collection, helping make them available online and on paper. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein covers Einstein’s life and work up to his 48th birthday. There are 484 Einstein writings and 3,450 letters written by and to him. It is said to be one of the most ambitious scholarly publishing ventures undertaken in the history of science. In 2004, the LA Times did a story about the visit back that has some other interesting facts.

LA Times


The somewhat odd history of California’s freeway soundwalls

Credit: Robert Petersen for LAist

The tall, mostly beige walls that seem to stretch forever along California freeways have a name: soundwalls. We’ve always thought of them as a kind of urban horse blinder, keeping all the incredibly diverse neighborhoods of LA out of your line of sight as you make your morning commute. Turns out they were built not to prevent you from taking in the splendors of Hawaiian Gardens, but to reduce the noise of traffic. More interestingly, as Robert Peterson writes in LAist, they originated with concert-goers complaints about highway noise while watching a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. They really exploded after the passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972, which established a nationwide program to reduce freeway noise and provided federal funding to build soundwalls. There are many more interesting facts about soundwalls in the story, assuring you’ll not see them as big, dumb walls ever again.


Flora and Fauna

Barn owls to save your wine

Credit: Great Big Story

CNN’s boutique video unit Great Big Story has got a wonderful piece about how barn owls are used in Napa Valley to control the rodent population. Apparently, without the owls, the vineyards would likely be ravaged by various grapevine-loving rodents, and/or the vineyards themselves would have to employ all manner of environmentally damaging poisons. They (the owls) seem to be doing a fine job protecting precious Pinots, but they are also incredibly cute.

Great Big Story

Marine Science

Schmidt Ocean Institute on Instagram

Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Hats off to the amazing work being done under the sea in the Gulf of California by Schmidt Ocean Institute, an ocean-focussed science non-profit run by Eric Schmidt of Sun Microsystems and Google fame and his wife. They have been posting regularly on Instagram, showcasing some amazing images of the undersea world, including blood red Riftia worms, bizarre invertebrates and colorful (purple!) microbes…and then there’s the upside-down mirror pools, all this kind of crazy stuff 2000m deep. You can also watch some of their highlights on YouTube.

Instagram YouTube

Flora and Fauna

Amphibian killing fungus devastates, but there’s hope in California

Credit: Roland Knapp

Interesting piece in the Atlantic on the terrifying fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), that has wiped out amphibians. “Never in recorded history has a single disease burned down so much of the tree of life,” writes Ed Yong. In California, numerous species have also been affected.

For example, in some places, the mountain yellow-legged frog is nearly extinct. Yet, scientists at UCSB’s Briggs Lab show that near Yosemite, small infected populations of the yellow-legged frog are surviving. Could they hold clues to helping other species?

UCSB Briggs Lab

Design by Luis Ramirez

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